This week, the NASCAR Cup Series heads for the high banks of Michigan for the Firekeepers Casino 400. This will be NASCAR's second doubleheader of the season as they continue to draw closer and closer to the playoffs. Earlier in the summer, NASCAR announced the final races before the playoffs and in those number of races they announced that they will be running two doubleheaders. One this Saturday and Sunday at Michigan and another in a few weeks at Dover. We saw a double feature race earlier this year at Pocono, so it will be interesting to see here in a different set of circumstances at Michigan. This track is a two and half mile oval that races similarly to a track like Auto Club as they both have plenty of grooves and lanes to run on. With this aero package it should be interesting to see if the racing is similar to last year's.
It was announced this week that NASCAR would unveil their last batch of races for the remainder of 2020 and for the most part the season remains pretty much the same. Richmond will get back one of it's races that was cancelled and Phoenix Raceway will remain the season finale. NASCAR had made it clear that they were hoping to keep their playoff races intact and luckily they were able to. We will still get to see Martinsville decide who gets to race in the final four, and we will still see Bristol in the playoffs as well. The only question that remains now is will these races have fans? I have a feeling that at tracks like Las Vegas we will see no fans but on tracks like Texas and Bristol or Richmond, I have a feeling they will be much more lenient. Only time will tell as everything remains fluid.
It was announced on Thursday that Erik Jones will not return to the #20 car for Joe Gibbs in 2021. This clears a path for the next Gibbs driver in the pipeline, Christopher Bell. The writing had been on the wall for a while as Toyota and Joe Gibbs had too many drivers and not enough seats to fit all of them. The same thing happened back in 2017 when it was announced that Erik Jones would be replacing Matt Kenseth in the same car. While I hate to see Jones lose his ride, I think it will only be temporary as there are a bunch of good rides available. Besides, you have to feel as if he is now the favorite to replace Jimmie Johnson next season after Brad Keselowski announced he will be back at Penske next season.
Another headline that was announced this week was the changes that will be made to how the field will start at the Daytona Roval. NASCAR also announced Thursday that they would use weighted metrics to decide who starts on the front-row. The formula will consist of three criteria including, finishing position in the previous race, position in owner points, and fastest lap time in the race. None of this makes any sense to the average viewer. In fact, most of the drivers I would imagine don't understand it either. There were probably better ways of doing this including actual practice and qualifying. I can understand that NASCAR is trying to do everything in their power to make sure drivers are limited at the racetrack, but this is becoming more and more unnecessary by the week.
As I mentioned earlier, Erik Jones will be looking for a ride next season. What better way to prove you belong than by winning races and that's what I predict he will do this weekend at Michigan. This is a track that is special to him considering he is a native Michigander. While he hasn't had the best finishes here over the past few years, I will say he has been running well. Despite a lackluster 24th place finish at New Hampshire, before that he had rattled off back-to-back top tens with a fifth at Texas and a sixth at Kansas. I look for him to get back in the grove and get his third career win and leave a big impression on all the teams looking for a driver next season. Look for Erik Jones to win one of the races this weekend.
The other driver I have winning this weekend is Joey Logano. On Saturday, Logano will roll off first to begin the weekend. This is a track where Joey has been stellar at as well. He has won here four times including back in 2013 in a race that put Logano back on the map and began his reign at Penske. I look for him to get win #4 this weekend at Michigan.
“Another one!”- DJ Khaled
That's the first thing that came to mind when I heard the news of Tytus Howard being shut down for the season because of a knee injury. They've had more injuries on the offensive line this season than Nick Cannon has Father's Day cards. Almost every member of the offensive line has spent time on the injury report. Howard went down in the same game in which Juice Scruggs was finally on the active roster. He missed the first 10 games due to a hamstring injury. The irony of next man up has never been so in your face.
The other thing that came to mind was the soap opera As the World Turns.
Howard had just signed an extension this offseason. So did Laremy Tunsil and Shaq Mason. They drafted Juice Scruggs, and signed a few guys too. Those moves, along with other holdovers, were expected to fill out the depth chart. Then a rash of injuries struck. At one point, only one of the original five guys expected to start was playing! In fact, they beat the Steelers 30-6 with that backup offensive line!
One can't have the expectation of backups to perform as good as the starters. They're professionals and are on an NFL roster for a reason. However, the talent gap is evident. One thing coaching, technique, and preparation can't cover is lack of ability or talent. The Texans have done a good job of navigating the injury minefield this season. While the Howard injury will hurt, I have faith in the guys there still.
As of this writing, the Texans are in the eighth spot in the AFC playoff picture. The Steelers, Browns, and Colts are all in front of them at the fifth through seventh spots respectfully. They've beaten the Steelers already. They play the Browns on Christmas Eve and their starting quarterback is out for the season. The Colts are relying on the ghost of Gardner Minshew to steer their ship into the last game of the season vs. the Texans with a possible playoff trip on the line. The Broncos and Bills are the two teams immediately behind them. They play the Broncos this weekend. Even though they're on a hot streak, this is the same team that got 70 put on them by the Dolphins. The Bills are the old veteran boxer who still has some skill, but is now a stepping stone for up & comers.
To say this team should still make the playoffs would be an understatement in my opinion. I believe in them and what they have going on more than I believe in the teams I listed above. That includes teams around them in the playoff race that aren't on their schedule. The one thing that scares me a little moving forward is the sustainability of this line. When guys get up in age as athletes, it becomes harder to come back from injuries. The injuries also tend to occur more frequently when it's a knee, foot, ankle, shoulder, elbow, or another body part critical to blocking for C.J. Stroud.
I know they just re-signed three of those guys and drafted one they believe can be a starter, but depth and contingency plans are a way of life in the NFL. We see how important depth was this season. Why not plan ahead? Don't be surprised if the Texans spend valuable draft capital on the offensive line. By valuable, I'm talking about first through third or fourth rounders. Those are prime spots to draft quality offensive lineman. Whether day one starters or quality depth, those are the sweet spots. The only guy on the two deep depth chart for this offensive line that wasn't drafted in one of those rounds was George Fant, who was an undrafted rookie free agent. While I highly doubt they spend any significant free agency dollars on the group, I'm not totally ruling it out.
The bottom line is, this team will be okay on the line for the remainder of this season. The only way that doesn't happen, more injuries. Stroud is clearly the franchise guy. Protecting that investment is a top priority. I don't care about a number one receiver, or a stud stable or singular running back if the quarterback won't have time to get them the ball. If the pilot can't fly the plane, you know what happens. So making sure he's happy, healthy, and has a great crew is of the utmost importance.